Those never-admitted European ransom payments

September 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Anglophone media has recently been making
noises about European governments making ransom payments to kidnappers.

It’s interesting that this has taken on the status of accepted fact — while, as far as I can tell, no European government has officially confirmed it. On the one hand I’m pleased that the media has the courage to report government actions without a press release. On the other, I’m a little nervous about how much this seems down to co-ordinated briefing by American officials. True it may be, but it’s apparently a truth only reported when it suits the powerful.

At the very least I’d hope that European journalists would browbeat officials into either confirming or denying the American (and British) official claims of ransom payments.

ETA: This New York Times article on the topic is pretty impressive, though, and obviously based on a lot of research.

KRG oil in Texas

September 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The slow progress of oil tankers makes for a nice change from the jackhammer pace of news. Disputes about Kurdish oil exports have been pottering along for months, following the movement of a few tankers around the world.

So we have the SCF Altai, which has apparently been running oil between Ceyhan and Israel since June.

And across the Atlantic there’s the United Kalavrta, which has been loitering off Texas while Iraq and Kurdistan slug out ownership rights in court. Once the court ruled against Iraq, the tanker promptly turned off its tracking beacon, and is now presumably unloading as quietly as possible.

ISIS’s new German-made missiles

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Germany has, after much soul-searching, decided to supply weapons to Kurds fighting against ISIS.

It must be slightly awkward, then, to discover that ISIS already have German weapons


Eliot Higgins identifies these as  HOT anti-tank missiles, made by a Franco-German consortium called Euromissile. 1000 of them were sold to Syria in the late 70s — officially by France, though Germany was deeply involved in the manufacture, and would have been consulted about the sale.

Embarrassingly, these HOT missiles are close cousins of the MILAN missiles, which Germany will now be giving to the Kurds. So Germany, usually one of the better-behaved arms exporters, gets the cachet of arming both sides with more-or-less the same weapons. Oops.

In fact, selling these to Syria was controversial  at the time in Germany. Not only did it break Germany’s rules on not arming “areas of conflict” — but since the conflict in question was between Syria and Israel, it caused strong protests from Israel. The German excuse was that, despite their German components, these were a French responsibility:

Government sources said missile exports to France were legal, provided the necessary government export permit was obtained, but once the items were in France, there was no ban on the re-export of the items to third countries.

This fit into an ongoing pattern by which Germany used France as the scapegoat for its weapons sales:

In a government agreementconcluded in 1972 Bonn and Paris agreed to interpretand apply their countries’ weapons export law “in the spirit of German-French cooperation.”

A little after this sale, Germany went even further in sidestepping responsibility:

Under SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] Chancellor Helmut Schmidt the Federal Government stipulated in 1982 that German parts for “Roland,” “Hot,” and”Milan” that were incorporated in the weapon in France “will be treated as goods of French origin.” They simply turned into French parts that are not subject to German export control. Thus, German consciousness remained unburdened.

[based partly on research by Charles Lister and Brown Moses]

Market Basket

August 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Jacobin on industrial action at supermarket chain Market Basket, as workers demand the reinstatement of a CEO who treated them well:

25,000 store employees are still showing up for work, while at the same time asking customers to boycott Market Basket. They are demanding the reinstatement of their recently fired CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, deposed by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Arthur T. is an atypically benevolent corporate head.

Market Basket workers are doing what is generally unthinkable in the precarious service economy: exerting their power as workers and risking their paychecks for their pride, good benefits and pay, and vision of how their workplace should operate — without the encouragement or protection of a union.

So Kanno

August 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Last night I was blown away by the work of So Kanno, a Japanese electronic artist based in Berlin. He was presenting at the Creative Coding Stammtisch, a digital artist meetup which — judging by my one and only visit — has an exceedingly high level of knowledge.

One of his neat ideas is the graffiti robot. Exploiting the chaotic motion of a double pendulum, this spray-paints quasi-random tags onto a wall. It’s not just fun to watch robot vandalism, but the results come out looking uncannily similar to plenty of human graffiti.

He also showed some very, very cool work with automatic 3D modelling, clothing manufacture and celebrity photos — but since he seems not to have written about it yet, I’d better keep schtum.

Trust in the UK

July 29th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

Alex at TYR discovers that we have become more trusting since the ’80s.

He’s taken a bunch of polls on which professions are trusted, and compared those for ’83-93 against those for ’03-’13. Trade Unionists are now much more trusted, presumably becuase they have been entirely defanged. Likewise civil servants, although they’re still trucking along more-or-less as they were.

Overall, though, it seems we now have a lot more faith in our institutions. So much for the idea that the center is falling apart, and society is fragmenting into mutually-suspicious subcultures.

Crooks and thieves, LDPR carding edition

July 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

An alleged Russian credit-card hacker has been extradited to the US after being arrested in the Maldives, says Kenneth Rijock. To complicate matters, his dad is a Duma deputy, and a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party)

Looking at the indictment, what surprises me is how manual the entire carding operation is.

Could tax inversion work for tech companies?

July 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

‘Tax inversion’ mergers are an increasingly-popular way for multinationals to dodge their tax bills, by arranging to be taken over by a corporation in a lower-tax jurisdiction. Fruit of the Loom, for example, used this dodge to move to the Cayman Islands back in 1998.

In the current wave, a string of companies are queuing up to move to Ireland through tax inversions, with pharmaceutical companies being the largest among them. Here the FT looks at a current example, Abbvie (US) planning to merge with Shire (UK/Ireland)

Reading the FT’s commentary makes it painfully clear that there is little business logic to a deal like this, beyond the massive extra profits to be had from dodging tax. And despite the political unpopularity, the IRS hasn’t yet found a way to crack down on them.

All this makes me look at the tech sector in a new light. Companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are hoarding huge piles of cash in their non-US subsidiaries. They’ll be liable for a massive tax bill once they bring it back to the US — which they will need in order to pay it out as shareholder dividends.

The general assumption is that they are waiting for some kind of tax break — if not a permanent change in the law, at least a one-off amnesty which will let them bring the money home. I’m now wondering, though, whether some of them are also contemplating a tax inversion. Move out of the US, then finally claim your profits and pay out dividends at a lower tax rate. This analysis suggests it’s likely, but has found no tech companies even hinting that they are contemplating it.

Searching overseas servers

July 21st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Did you ever worry which jurisdiction a server was in? No longer. The US and UK have both decided they can demand access to data regardless of where in the world it is, writes Marcy Wheeler.

The UK version comes courtesy of DRIP, the surveillance bill being rushed through parliament to avoid awkward questions. The government’s defense, bizarrely, is that they have been doing this all along:

The home secretary told the Commons home affairs committee that it had always been assumed “in government circles” that the requirement on overseas companies to comply with British intercept warrants was included in the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

In the US, the government has won a case forcing Microsoft to turn over data from Ireland:

the U.S. feels free to demand data from U.S. companies no matter where that data is stored. So while Microsoft’s challenge largely serves to make its legal obligations visible to the rest of the world, the legal case may have real consequences, both legally and economically.

So, in brief: wherever in the world your data is, it isn’t safe from hte UK or the US

770 migrants died this year, trying to reach the EU

July 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

So far this year, 770 migrants have died trying to reach Europe, or trying to stay here.

That’s an underestimate.

The Migrants Files contains the details. It’s an attempt to track all the deaths associated with migration in(to) Europe. The details make for sobering reading:

  • 25 migrants were locked up in a cold store by their traffickers in Libya. 13 died.
  • The 27 survivors of a shipwreck said there were an additional 75 persons on board.
  • A migrant was shot at Calais. No other details were provided by the police.
  • Stowaway fell from the wheelbay on a plane to Zürich.

It goes on, and on — 2780 incidents stretching back to 2000. 25,000 dead.

And, aside from the occasional media fuss, we don’t care. We don’t even know the names of most of the victims, let alone the circumstances which drove them to risk their lives in transit. The deaths aren’t being tracked officially — this is a database put together by journalists, mianly from news reports.


July 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve not tried this, but I like the concept. Quietnet connects two computers using their speakers, turning a text chat session into ultrasonic communication:

run python in one terminal window and python in another. Text you input into the window should appear (after a delay) in the window.

Warning: May annoy some animals and humans.

Education of a prince

June 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m enjoying The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s history of the start of the First World War. I may well not make it through all 700-odd pages, but so far he has an eye for the comically grotesque in early 20th century Europe.

So there’s the story of how a military officer nicknamed Apis, veteran of several regicidal plots, was trusted to look after the crown prince:

when King Petar looked in the winter of 1905 for a companion to accompany his son, Crown Prince Djordje, on a journey across Europe, he should choose none other than Apis, fresh from a long convalescence and still carrying three of the bullets that had entered his body on the night of the assassinations. The chief architect of the regicide was thus charged with seeing the next Karadjordjevic king through to the end of his education as prince. In the event, Djordje never became king; he disqualified himself from the Serbian succession in 1909 by kicking his valet to death

Hiding from the public

June 21st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Good Yorkshire Rant on issues where the UK political parties are in agreement, and a majority of the population disagrees with them all.

It has been true, as long as there has been a privatised railway, that any British politician could do better in the polls by attacking it and by promising to reverse the privatisation….There is even a simple policy option available to make it happen: stop issuing franchises and just let them all revert. Yet no-one with any power has been willing to take the step of making this option available on the ballot. The political system’s role as a mechanism for limiting the agenda has rarely been more clear.

The parties doing well, UKIP and the SNP, are the ones breaking out of this consensus to avoid certain issues

Pool: a game all about stoning chickens

June 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Etymologicon is a wonderful book on English word origins. I thought I’d share one particularly hilarious bit: the origin of pool:

It starts with French gamblers. Apparently they would place bets on who was able to hit a chicken (poule) with a rock. Then:

The term got transferred to other things. At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table came to be known as the poule. English gamblers picked the term up and brought it back with them in the seventeenth century. They changed the spelling to pool, but htey still had a pool of money in the middle of the table.

When billiards became a popular sport, people started to gamble on it, and this variation was known as pool, hence shooting pool.

Crystal meth in Tehran

June 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Crystal meth is increasingly popular in Iran, reports the Guardian

Meth production in the country has been expanding at an astonishing rate
Research carried out by the State Welfare Organisation shows that over half a million Tehranis between the ages of 15 and 45 have used it at least once.

Meth is apparently less socially constrained than other drugs. Cocaine is for the rich, ecstasy is for teenagers, opium is for the elderly — but crystal meth is for everyone.

Clean blogging in Russia

May 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Russia’s crackdown on bloggers includes an obscenity ban. From August, Russian blogs will be banned from using хуй (‘cock, prick’), пизда (‘cunt’), ебать (‘fuck’), and блядь (‘whore’). From the New York Times:

“We feel like we are back in kindergarten again when they said, ‘Don’t pee in your bed and don’t eat with your hands and don’t use that word,’ ” said Viktor V. Yerofeyev, a popular writer. “On the one hand, the Russian government says the Russian people are the best. On the other hand, it doesn’t trust the people.”

[via Language Hat]

Teaching Ovid, rape and all

May 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Liz Gloyn worries how to teach the rapey bits of Classics — especially given that, statistically, it’s likely that some of her students will have been affected by sexual violence:

I have a pedagogical duty to frame those texts in ways which do not diminish them, do not side-line them or pretend they are not there. Ignoring the uncomfortable bits is not only lazy – it’s also potentially dangerous, because it does not challenge narratives which a feminist pedagogy should. It does not challenge students to read this material with a critical eye, to see what is actually going on in them – which is a skill we would expect them to demonstrate when reading any other text. Incidentally, it does also not require us to judge the ancient texts anachronistically. We are not asking the Romans to share our standards. What I am asking is that my students appreciate just how different these texts are from what we would see as socially acceptable, and to read them with that in mind.

Russia’s ‘defensive’ invasion

May 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Tony Wood in the LRB argues that the catastrophe in Ukraine comes down to Russia acting defensively:

For Russia, the basic goal has until recently been a symmetrical pushback: to keep Ukraine out of Western security and economic structures, at the very least as a neutral state, if not as an active member of a ‘Eurasian Union’ dominated by Russia.

With Yanukovych ousted and his Party of Regions crumbling – 77 of its 200-odd MPs deserted before February was out – Moscow no longer had any political leverage in Kiev. At this stage, its goals correspondingly shifted: to force the US and EU to take Russian interests into account, and ideally agree on a new government for Ukraine that it found more congenial.

I agree with one strand of this. Russia’s aggression is defensive. Annexation is just a means of reclaiming influence that Russia had, and believes it deserves. Nobody expects that, when the storm passes, Russia will have more influence in Kiev than it did last year. The past — a mostly unified state mostly subservient to Russian needs — was ideal for the Kremlin. Now they are just hoping to cobble together some inferior replacement for that power, through federalism and rebellion.

I disagree, though, that the West is Russia’s primary antagonist. Far from cunningly establishing control through Soft Power, Western policy has mostly run on autopilot and disinterest. Yes, there are wonks still playing out strategies of Cold War geopolitics. But real attention and resources have only turned up at times of crisis, namely the Orange Revolution and today. Eurocrats seem as nonplussed as anybody to see EU flags turn up as symbols of protest.

And if the West is only half-heartedly pulling Ukraine into its sphere of influence, those ‘pro-Western’ Ukrainians seem far more interested in escaping Russia’s influence than in joining the EU’s. The real drive — and Putin’s real fear — is a truly independent Ukraine.

Why are Depeche Mode’s awful lyrics so compelling?

May 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I discovered Agata Pyzik because of her recent book on Eastern European politics and culture, which I’m still making my way through.
Meanwhile that has led me to her blog, which includes this outstanding post on the atrocious-yet-compelling lyrics of Depeche Mode;

The power of Depeche Mode’s lyrics lay in a perfect combination of vagueness and a resemblance to agitprop, ending up somewhere between the political sloganeering of the falling Communist bloc and the promises of the Big Capital offered by the West.

If after pop art, everything could be important for 15 minutes, the pop lyric makes sense only during the provisional three minutes of a single. The words hold meaning within the context of this magical moment, and nowhere else. It’s a metaphorical space of transformation, where temporary unions and associations can form. A pop utopia.

She also captures something of their iconography, that odd blend of high futurism, coldness and romaticism:

Depeche could appeal to both Soviet Bloc and America, because aesthetically and lyrically they consciously flirted with both sides of the Curtain: heavy industry, Red Army, red stars, looming nuclear catastrophy and Potemkineqsue battleships for one side and lust, orgies, stock market, Eastern Tigers, money, high contracts and cocaine binges for the other.

Chocolate-throwing satanic lesbians

May 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The exorcism business is booming, reports the Washington Post, under a Pope who is a fervent believer in the power of Satanic forces. Demonic possession is all about the growling, explains one expert:

“Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.

Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”

Clearly I lack Rev. Truqui’s Proustian sensibilities, having no idea of the smell of my first Margherita.

The rest of the article is good, but seems determined to contrast Francis’ progressive reputation with his “old school” views of the devil. Perhaps it’s my near-total ignorance of Catholic doctrine, but I don’t see the problem here. There is little interaction between how you see the devil and how you deal with poverty, homosexuality, etc.